As a university student in 1987, Mardelle Gamble dreamed of becoming a doctor. The 17-year-old was working part-time in the Calgary General Hospital emergency department when she met STARS pilots and listened to stories of their medical missions.

“It sounded like an amazing organization to be part of,” said Gamble. “Later, I was driving to class when I saw the helicopter fly across the sky. I wondered if there was any way I could help.”

Gamble became STARS’ first non-medical volunteer when she asked founder Dr. Greg Powell what she could do for the air ambulance. At first, he told her STARS only took medical volunteers.

“I said I could do whatever was needed. That’s how I became the right-hand woman for the secretary, Meredith, and stuffed envelopes and entered in donations, things like that.”

As STARS celebrates its 30th anniversary,  we recall fondly the importance of volunteers and how this organization wouldn’t have stayed in the air without them.

When STARS launched in 1985, everyone but the pilots were volunteers – including the paramedics and nurses who were saving lives.

“Volunteers are as crucial now as they were 30 years ago when we were trying to get the service off the ground,” said Megan Thomson, STARS manager, events, adding STARS has 475 volunteers throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Dan Lorenz is a volunteer in Raymore, Sask. Along with his wife, Cheryl, the farmer and fire chief started volunteering about three years ago. Lorenz guides helicopter landings as well as helps with community events.

“STARS is a lifesaver,” said Lorenz. “We’re more than an hour drive from Regina and our nearest ambulance is over 45 minutes away. In 22 minutes, we can have a helicopter on our doorsteps.”

STARS volunteers do a variety of tasks including everything from wearing the STARBEAR mascot costume, to running casinos, and handling registrations for golf tournaments. Some volunteers are former STARS patients – called Very Important Patients or VIPs – who share their personal stories at events or in our publications.

Occasionally, entire families become involved. The Manerings are long-time Calgary volunteers. Lauretta Manering began almost 20 years ago, when a woman suggested she use her outgoing personality for the benefit of the organization. Her first act as a volunteer was accepting a cheque on behalf of STARS in Banff in October 1996.

Today, Lauretta sits on the executive committee that plans the STARS and Spurs Gala, the organization’s largest fundraising event. Her main assignment for this past January’s edition was finding items for the silent auction: a task that took about 80 hours.

“STARS allows people to hold on to their dreams,” said Manering. “Just watching the effect STARS has on the lives of patients and knowing I had a little part of keeping that red helicopter in the sky touches me.”

Her son Ross and husband Kevan joined STARS’ volunteer team in 1997.

“It’s a good feeling to be part of something so special,” said Kevan.

Over the years, the role of volunteers has evolved. As STARS branched out, some volunteer roles became paid positions, including the medical crews. However, the air ambulance will always need volunteers. One future helper might be Ross’s daughter, Evita, who is only two years old now.

“She will be a STARS volunteer someday,” said Ross.

For Gamble, after volunteering she became a transport physician. She also married a STARS pilot, Fraser Gamble.

“I live by the idea of leaving the world a little better than the way I entered,” said Mardelle. “Volunteering for STARS gave me the opportunity to do that.”